World Music Artists Shut Out of U.S. Borders

Jesus Chucho ValdesAmericans are often horrified when they discover that in countries like China and Cuba, books, music and movies from other countries are often banned. We pride ourselves on our freedoms -- particularly our freedoms of speech, expression, and access to information. At a time when the president uses black and white terms like “good” and “evil” to justify war, it is especially important that American youth be exposed to perspectives from outside of the U.S. in order to piece together their own views of the world. Being exposed to teachers, musicians, artists, and writers from different countries is one way to accomplish this. But thanks to the Bush Administration's recent tightening of U.S. borders, there may be fewer and fewer opportunities for these cross-cultural exchanges in the future.

Jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, the first modern Cuban artist to sign a U.S. recording contract, has been nominated for a Grammy, performed numerous tours in the United States, and was named by Time magazine as "perhaps one of the greatest pianists in the world."

Despite his distinguished reputation, however, the U.S. government sees him as a potential terrorist.

In May 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act, which requires longer and more stringent security checks for people applying for visas from a "watch-list" of seven countries that the government has proclaimed "state sponsors of terrorism." Cuba, of course, is on the list, along with Sudan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.

The new visa rules are designed to keep terrorists out of the U.S., but are having the adverse of keeping out international performance artists as well. Although the policies are not aimed specifically at artists, venues and their clients have had to postpone or cancel concerts, festivals, and even entire tours, robbing American audiences of a chance to understand and appreciate different cultures.

Afro-Cuban All StarsIn November, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, one of Cuba's most prominent musical acts, planned to perform in Berkeley as part of its U.S. tour. The new visa policy prevented the group from entering the country, and forced them to cancel their entire 20-date tour.

Similarly, Valdes could not attend the Latin Grammy Awards in September because of the new visa regulations. And Syria's Whirling Dervishes had to miss a scheduled performance at the L.A. World Festival of Sacred Music in September because the members of the group did not receive a response to their visa applications in time for the performance.

Since many foreign artists are having difficulty acquiring visas on time, if at all, clubs and concert halls may hesitate to even schedule foreign artists for fear it will be a waste of time and money.

And if visa laws continue to create frustrating delays and denials for international musicians entering the country, record companies might start releasing fewer albums from those musicians because they will not be able to promote the artists' music via live performances.

This compounding crisis could have a long-term impact on the music world and the marketplace of cultural exchange. American youth must realize that the government's increasingly rigid immigration laws could have a more direct effect on their lives than they may have originally assumed.

The Whirling DervishesEven without the new laws, the process of visa approvals and background checks is far from simple. First, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has to declare that a performer is highly distinguished or culturally unique -- in other words, that they're not taking work away from Americans who could perform just as well -- according to the U.S. Visas Today website. Meanwhile, the process of defining someone as "culturally unique" remains, of course, subjective. An INS security check follows, with a recommendation to the American embassy as to whether or not to approve the artist. If approved, separate security checks ensue. Law enforcement agencies in Washington D.C. must look at the application and give a second approval, which may take a long time depending on whether or not the applicant requires a security review.

Although the government has good intentions in trying to protect the country from possible terrorists by ushering in stricter visa policies, the government should expedite the time it takes to consider the visa application of an artist who has a record of successful, law-abiding touring in the United States. This way, artists who have proven they are no danger to the country can enter without prolonged security checks, and the American public can enjoy the entertainment artists like Valdes have to bring.

Depriving U.S. citizens of the opportunity to witness different artistic traditions leads to a dangerous lack of awareness of these cultures. Future generations of Americans will be ignorant of the cultures that lie outside of their borders, an ignorance that is particularly problematic in light of the world's current political climate. Ignorance often leads to fear, ethnocentricism, and intolerance, which in turn can lead to violence.

Yvonne Wong is a 17-year-old features editor and reporter for Lowell High School's newspaper, The Lowell, in San Francisco. She enjoys denouncing misogynists, discussing comprehensive sex knowledge, making daisy chains, and baking banana-cream pies.
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